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I Want to Be Sexy ... Just Like Mommy

Media has only some part to play in the early sexualization of girls — a new study indicates their mothers play a vital role too.

There’s the clichéd image of a little girl putting on her mother’s makeup, mimicking with studied precision the sucked-in cheeks of blush application, the open mouth of mascara-face, the puckering up post-lipstick-application. There’s the oft-repeated scenario of a kindergartner sashaying in oversize heels, placing a hand on either hip as she poses for an imaginary audience.

These are well-worn images in part because they ring so true: Girls learn what it means to be a woman by watching their moms. A  new study has not only corroborated that but also found that mothers are a strong predictor — even more than the amount of media consumption alone — of whether a girl will regard herself as a sex object. The study sample was too minute to be definitive and has to be followed up with future research, but it raises important questions about how to best prevent young girls from regarding themselves as Bratz dolls.

Researchers had a group of 60 girls between the ages of 6 and 9 choose between two paper dolls that were identical save for their dress: One wore revealing, “sexy” clothing, while the other wore “stylish but non-sexualized clothing.” The researchers found that “girls overwhelmingly chose the sexualized doll over the non-sexualized doll” when asked which one they would like to look like and which one would be popular. Given our sex-saturated culture, this surprised no one. What  was surprising was this conclusion: “We do not find media consumption to be the primary culprit for early sexualization of young girls.” The researchers went on to say that “the quantity of TV and movies watched is not, in and of itself, a risk factor for young girls’ sexualized self-views.” Instead, it’s “the interaction between media hours and maternal self-objectification that creates vulnerability for early sexualization.”

That is to say, media-immersed girls with moms who view themselves as sex objects were more likely to pick the sexy paper doll.

Why? Well, the researchers speculate, “high media consumption may provide young girls a predisposition towards early sexualization which is only realized for those whose mothers display reinforcing self-objectifying attitudes and behaviors. Alternatively, girls of highly self-objectifying mothers may model their mother’s self-objectified attitudes and behavior, and effectively begin to self-sexualize and self-objectify in the presence of myriad reinforcing images afforded by high media consumption.”

In her 2008 book  “The Lolita Effect: The Media Sexualization of Young Girls and Five Keys to Fixing It,” Gigi Durham bemoaned that “the turn of the new millennium has spawned an intriguing phenomenon: the sexy little girl … with preternaturally voluptuous curves, and one whose scantily clad body gyrates in music videos, poses provocatively on teen magazine covers, and populates cinema and television screens around the globe.” But the aim of her book wasn’t just to criticize media that sexualizes little girls — instead, she emphasized the importance of parental influence.

That is in part because of the pervasiveness of media — specifically sexualized media — in kids’ lives. “Walking through the mall you’re getting huge posters and billboards, it’s just everywhere. It’s really impossible to escape,” says Durham, a professor at the University of Iowa. “You can’t keep your kids in a bubble. The best approach is to be proactive and teach them to be critical consumers.”

In Durham’s research with middle-school girls “it was very clear that mothers were influential in their lives,” she says. “When I did meet girls who were able to take a critical perspective on the media and thinking of themselves in multidimensional terms rather than just in terms of sexuality, they almost always said it was their mom who sat down with them and had discussions about the media — either their mothers or some other important adult in their life, but most often moms came up.”